Irena Stein and I are eating dinner, but it’s the young guest seated at a table next to us that has captured the restaurateur’s attention. The little boy has eaten exactly nothing during his time at Alma Cocina Latina while his mother and extended family have feasted on the Venezuelan specialties for which Stein’s restaurant is known. Instead of a plate, he grips a smartphone.
Stein, a glam grandmother with a curly pixie cut and dark-rimmed eyeglasses, heads to the kitchen of her airy, plant-filled Station North eatery to order the boy a plate of tequeños, or fried cheese sticks, typically available only at the bar. But the boy refuses.
“You don’t want tequeños? Are you well?” Stein asks him, pressing the back of her hand on his forehead. She plans to take him to the kitchen later, to introduce him to the restaurant’s chef and check out the walk-in refrigerator. That always wins kids over when they can see how the food is made, she said: “They come back to the table very proud and very happy.”
Stein believes in the power of food to nourish, educate and even promote peace. “I like the idea of food as a vehicle for togetherness. That is my ultimate purpose,” she said over a plate of arepitas, the miniature fried version of corn cakes called arepas.
That philosophy has driven Stein’s work as owner of Alma Cocina Latina, which first opened in Canton before moving to its current home on North Charles Street. It’s also behind her ambitious new cookbook, “Arepa: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Venezuela’s Daily Bread,” which she authored and photographed. The book aims to do nothing less than tell the 3,000-year history of the arepa, the signature street food of her native Venezuela. Stein said the tome, out July 18, is “the first comprehensive book on arepas,” a dish she calls “the new taco” for its soaring popularity.
When it opened in 2015, Alma was perhaps the first restaurant in the area to serve the dish, which is now available from stands such as Arepi. But Stein said Alma’s current chef decided to take them off the dinner menu when he came on board in favor of dishes like ceviche served with squiggles of sweet potato puree and to-die-for monkfish in bouillabaisse. Though she calls losing arepas “a sad decision,” it was just about economizing space. “Arepas take a lot of room in the kitchen,” she said, though the miniature versions are still available for dinner.
This fall, Stein plans to launch an arepa bar just around the corner from Alma called Candela, or “fire” in colloquial Spanish. The spot, in the former Milk & Honey Café, will serve “Venezuela’s daily bread” in various renditions, ranging from plant-based to seafood to more traditional meat-filled versions. The new venture should please Alma’s customers, who, Stein said, “flipped out” when they were taken off the menu at her flagship restaurant.
Candela, the new, more casual eatery, comes as Alma has closed Cielo Verde, the museum café inside the American Visionary Art Museum. Stein said pandemic strains and staffing issues, as well as the café's location, made it difficult to run on a consistent basis. “People never came back in abundance,” she said. “How do you sustain payroll?”
That won’t be a problem in Station North, a neighborhood that Stein said benefits from consistent foot traffic with nearby schools and restaurants such as Foraged and Tapas Teatro drawing customers to the block. And with the redevelopment of Penn Station, things are likely to get even busier in this area. “If we don’t work here, we’re idiots,” she said. “I cannot imagine a better location.”
Alma has also ended a partnership with Mera Kitchen Collective, which briefly shared the restaurant’s kitchen, since Mera relocated to a restaurant in Midtown-Belvedere. The two groups had partnered during the pandemic to serve free community meals through José Andrés’ organization, World Central Kitchen.
Stein’s idea for the cookbook came about as a way “to give honor to the arepa,” she said. “It’s at the center of our food culture,” and one that has traveled the globe as approximately 7 million Venezuelans left their homeland in search of a better life, according to estimates from the United Nations Refugee Agency. Over the years, arepas have evolved and expanded wherever in the world they’ve gone, adopting new fillings along the way. “They’ve landed all kinds of places, but they continue to be the same arepa,” Stein said.
In a sense, the dish’s journey is similar to Stein’s. She has Polish and Venezuelan ancestry and spent much of her childhood in Europe, leaving Venezuela as an adult in the 1980s to pursue her master’s in cultural anthropology at Stanford University. Stein was a Fulbright scholar, and one of only two recipients of the award from developing countries that year.
Getting the book published was an uphill battle: Some publishers said she didn’t have enough followers on social media to make it worth their while; another told her she was too “white-passing” to author a book on Venezuelan food; others didn’t want to publish a single-subject cookbook. Help came from her friend Hilton Carter, a well-known Baltimore plant stylist and author, who introduced Stein to London-based publisher Ryland Peters & Small, who was intrigued enough to sign on.
The fact that the world’s first comprehensive book on arepas was written by someone in the United States has already provoked some grumbling back in her home country, Stein said. “My look? Not Venezuelan. The color of my hair? Not Venezuelan,” she said. “There are a lot of people who will criticize me for that.”
Still, others won’t care; they’re too busy enjoying the celebration of Venezuelan culture that Stein brings to the table. Back in the restaurant, the boy’s Venezuelan-born mother, Maria Abdur-Raheem, told Stein she had already ordered the book and will gift additional copies for the holidays. “That’s my plan for this Christmas,” she said.
Stein asked what the restaurant could prepare that the boy might eat. They work marvels in the kitchen of Alma Cocina Latina. Alas, his mother said, he only eats one thing: McDonald’s.
Stein sighed. At least for today, even her persistence was no match for this picky eater.